How to wage peace

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.”  Each time I pass this banner in front of the Quaker meeting house I’m reminded that our actions for peace have to start in our own homes and lives.image

What are the causes of war but the same things that lead to strife on the micro-level: wanting an advantage over someone else, refusing to forgive a past wrong, holding on to things long after their importance has waned?

A more peaceable life might be within reach if we turned more often to these intentions:

Compromise — The word comes from the Latin meaning a “mutual promise”. Too often we think of compromise as one-sided, only seeing how much we are giving up. But the promise in compromise is powerful, and it shows how much we are gaining from the other side.

Listen first – In the words of a U.N. peacekeeper, “You have to be willing to let each person express their point of view, even if it’s a criticism against you. You have to let them talk first, and then speak. If you don’t let them express themselves, you won’t get any results from the discussion.”

Forgiveness — When we forgive, we can begin to heal the hurt that we feel. Refusing to forgive just lets the hurt fester – and closes down our hearts a little. Gregory David Roberts writes that “every act of love is in some way a promise to forgive,” that love is dependent upon our ability to forgive.

Accept change – Nothing stays the same. And as Frank Jude Boccio writes, “The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don’t.” We let beliefs about how things should be keep us locked in a struggle with how things actually are. Shedding those habits of mind can drastically shift perspective.

Happiness is a universal goal – In an interview in The Atlantic, Daniel Gilbert talked about it this way:

I think the problem with the word “happiness” is that it sounds fluffy. It sounds like something trivial that we shouldn’t be concerned with. But just set aside the word and think about what the word signifies. You quickly realize that not only should we be concerned with the study of happiness, but that it’s impossible to be concerned with anything else. Pascal says: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception … This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

How could the goal of all human behavior be a trivial thing?

How does your life help to remove the causes of war? We may not be able to solve the problems in the Ukraine or Syria, but if we live our lives in a way that demonstrates the principles of peace — acceptance, forgiveness, compromise, humanity, understanding — maybe we can start a tiny ripple of peace in the world.




Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”

“May there be joy in the world with harvest and spiritual rest. May every good fortune come to be and may all our wishes be fulfilled.”

These words, which the Dalai Lama prays every day, were the start of his message to the U.S. Senate yesterday.  What would the world be like if we all started the day with similar intentions?

Flower conservatory at GG Park 1

My first best friend left my life so long ago that I can barely remember her face. Strawberry blond hair, some freckles, a vague recollection of her smile, and that’s it. But a writing prompt from my Wellness & Writing Connections group has had me trying to conjure memories of her all week.  “Write 25 words that describe a childhood friend.” Can I find 25 words that fully capture Susie and what she meant to me?

yin yangShe was the yang to my yin, bold where I was shy, fearless where I was cautious, loud where I was quiet. With Susie, I tasted independence for the first time, earned my first money, ran away from home, and learned about sex. From the age of 4 until 11, we were inseparable, the sidewalk that ran between our houses a well-worn path.

From Susie, I also learned about loss, not when she died, but when our friendship broke up. I spent a summer mourning her, just as surely as if she had died. I know now that I was just as responsible for the end of our friendship as she was, though I didn’t see it that way back then. It was devastating to me.

Having Susie for a friend taught me to leave my comfort zone in two ways. When we were together, she was often challenging me to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do. And when we weren’t together anymore, I had to forge bonds with new people outside the comfort zone of her friendship.

Social scientists believe that we tend to seek out friendships with people of similar personalities (the “similarity effect”), but Susie taught me to appreciate a friend who is the opposite of me, one who stretches my view of the world and pushes me toward new possibilities. As Henry Ford once said, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”

I see glimmers of my first best friend in several close friends who came along later: The ones who were from very different backgrounds; the ones who were bold and outspoken; the ones who were just a little bit wild. I’m grateful to all of them for where they’ve taken me and how they have enriched my life. But I will never be able to thank Susie in person for what she taught me; there will be no re-connection on Facebook, no school reunions, no chance meetings. She died young, and true to form, doing something a little bit dangerous.

So let these 400+ words that describe my childhood friend be my letter of gratitude, my valentine to her.Valentine2

Have you ever been upset with someone, frustrated because they didn’t understand what you needed from them, only to have them say, “I’m not psychic you know!” The message, of course, is that we can’t read each other’s minds, so how can we possibly know what another person feels or needs?

But the reality is that we really don’t have to be psychic to know some basic things about other people; we just have to pay attention.

In case you’ve never seen The Mentalist, it’s about Patrick Jane, a man who at one time pretended to be a psychic. In reality, he just has very keen powers of observation and a lot of chutzpah. His arrogance as a fake psychic caused his family to be murdered, however, so he stopped pretending, and went to work for the police, helping them solve criminal cases.

Of course, The Mentalist is a fictional TV show, but it’s fascinating to watch as the character explains what he knows about a suspect or a witness, just from observing or talking with them. Body language, clothes, nervous habits, accents, the things we surround ourselves with – they tell our story, if anyone takes the time to read it. Patrick Jane does that – he questions things that seem out of place; he uses his senses; he looks for what people value, he empathizes.

If only we were all TV characters like the Mentalist! We might understand so much more about each other. Don’t despair, though, there’s an app for that. Cognitive psychologists have been developing wearable gadgets that can monitor emotional ups and downs by measuring things such as heart rate and electrical changes in the skin. Depending on the device, they send messages about your emotional state to you or to other people. This is not as creepy as it sounds. Worn by children with autism, they can provide valuable messages to parents and caregivers so that the adults can respond to a child’s behaviors appropriately, even if the child isn’t able to express what he or she is feeling. The devices are also useful as biofeedback tools so that you can learn to recognize and manage your own moods and emotions.

Would feedback like that help us understand each other better? If you’re wearing a wristband that sends me messages when you’re feeling low, would I eventually learn to recognize those moods without the technology? Or would I become dependent on the technology and no more sensitive than I was before?

Humans are hard-wired for empathy – somewhat. We learn it as children by watching the adults around us, and from stories we read and hear. But we need to keep practicing it. Even as adults, we can improve our emotional intelligence. Before we can truly understand others’ emotions, we have to start with ourselves – staying connected to our emotions instead of suppressing them, learning how to reduce stress and being okay with strong feelings. Then we can expand that intelligence to include others – communicating better by staying focused on the person we’re with, making eye contact, paying attention to nonverbal cues (like the Mentalist!)

Daniel Goleman says that, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” How you turn your attention to someone may not matter in the end. Staying tuned in emotionally with the people we love makes our relationships stronger, whether it comes from a gadget, a mindfulness practice, or even psychic ability.


A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

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